Icon painting is an ancient form of sacred art that is very much part of contemporary culture on the island nation of Cyprus. To members of the Orthodox faith, icons are representations of the divine used in teaching and worship. The Greek word for "icon" is, "Αγιογραφία," which can be separated into two words Άγιο, meaning Holy or not of this world and Γράφω, meaning to write.
While there are numerous heritage sites across Cyprus that have historical connections with saints and monks, in the city of Limassol, you can make a personal connection with a modern-day cultural standard-bearer who is carrying on the time-honored tradition.
My guide in Cyprus knew I had an interest in the country's spiritual heritage and asked if my husband and I wanted to meet acclaimed modern-day icon painter Myrianthi Constantinidou. He explained that Myrianthi is an award-winning painter of portable icons and iconostasis of many churches of Cyprus. David said she began her career in 1997 and noted that her portable icons are exhibited in important private collections in Cyprus, Europe, Russia and America. She began her career in 1997.
We accepted the invitation enthusiastically and the next day we were off to Myrianthi's studio in Limassol on Cyprus’ southern coast. The city is a pocket of sites preserved for posterity, with the site of the 7th century B.C. Sanctuary of Apollo, the sprawling ruins of the second century Greek town of Kourion and the well-preserved medieval castle of Kolossi, built by a Grand Master of the Knights of St. John.
Icon Painter Myrianthi's Studio and the Company of Saints
We followed our guide David along narrow streets near the harbor. He stopped abruptly at a storefront and we followed him into a sun-filled studio and the company of saints. David exchanged greetings in Greek with Myrianthi, making the motions of introducing my husband Tom and me. The petite brunette welcomed us with a wide smile, pulling a chair over for me to sit next to her at her workspace.
She faced her easel, on which sat a large canvas depicting the image of a haloed and bearded man against a rich gold background. To Myrianthi’s left was a table spilling over with paints and brushes, and propped up around her on other easels and the floor where other works-in-progress, in various stages of completion.
With David translating, I asked the acclaimed icon painter about her process.
“Inside of me I feel something that pushes me,” she responded. “I might start an icon with one idea and something happens and that says ‘no, I will do a Virgin Mary instead.’
Painting as Feeling
She said the way she feels on a particular day will influence her painting. Some days she comes into her studio and looks at what she had done the day before and says ‘What?!’ and starts over. She can’t predict how long a piece will take. In the morning she can think she will be done in an hour and she is still working at 7:30 p.m. If she has been commissioned to do a piece and is under a deadline, she gets nervous and anxious and it affects the flow of her work.
I nodded my head vigorously—I often had similar such experiences in approaching my writing. David conveyed my empathy to Myrianthi , who gave me a radiant smile; despite the language barrier, a connection had been made.
She explained there are two schools of icon-painting, the Cretan and Macedonian. She is trained in the style of the Macedonian school of northern Greece. She said the Cretan school is more stern and austere in the expressions depicted and uses dark colors that she said “almost makes you afraid to look at them.”
A Tutorial on Technique from Icon Painter
Myrianthi said that there are strict conventions and technical requirements—icon painters are part of a tradition and you can’t just do whatever you wish. There are manuscripts and books that dictate the approach. When asked for examples, she reeled off a litany: the Virgin Mary is never in white; St. Peter is to be shown with a key, symbolizing heaven; martyrs are depicted holding a cross; if the figure of a bishop is shown, his robes will always have a design of crosses embellished on it. Different clothing symbolizes different social stations—royalty or commoners.
Nonetheless, as an artist, Myrianthi puts her own stamp on her work—people who see her pieces can immediately tell they were created by her. She begins with the background color. Then she does a prototype sketch and paints the gold leaf, then she does the first layer of colors, then she does the details—eyes, nose, mouth, hair. Then she does two layers of varnish. She buys the gold leaf in increments of 20 books, each of which have 25 pages about the size of a playing card and cost 1,200 euro.
A Mother-Daughter Duo
On the day I visited her sunny storefront studio, Myrianthi’s 10-year-old daughter, Thelma, helped her mother by filling in areas of a painting with color.
I asked Thelma if she aspired to carry on the family tradition and become an iconographer.
She told me she helps her mother by filling in areas with color but wants to be a doctor, although she’d like to carry on with it as a hobby. Thelma added, “It is important work and it would be a great shame if the tradition died in Cyprus."
During Myrianthi’s early years as an iconographer working at Chrysorrogiatissa Monastery, she would bring Thelma to her workshop there, where the child slept at her feet in a basket as she painted.
Myrianthi pointed to a figure in a painting of the Last Supper and asked Thelma who it was and she replied “Judas.” When I asked how she knew that, Thelma said “Because he is reaching for the fruit before everyone else.”
Myrianthi explained that the significance of the icons is that everyone used to be illiterate and they were used to get out the message of the history and values.
Passion and Talent Passed Down From Father to Daughter
There is a Constantinidis family tradition in iconography, which began in 1961 when Myrianthi’s father George began studying the art in Athens. He later was a pupil of Father Kallinikos of Stavrovouni Monastery, an icon in the realm of this religious art form who died in 2011.
Her father spent ten years creating a wall painting for Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery. Myrianthi helped him from an early age and saw from close up the processes and secrets involved in hand-painting icons and frescos. Her brother does wall painting at churches—she believes they both inherited their passion from their father.
Through David’s continued translation, Myrianthi said that in 1999 her father got sick and had a liver transplant. There was an order at George’s workshop at that time from the abbot of Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for an icon painting of the Virgin Mary. George was so sick he couldn’t do it and he encouraged Myrianthi to create the painting.
When it was completed, George told her that because it was her work, she should deliver the painting. It was the first piece she had done and she was anxious and insecure when she brought it to show the abbot. He told her that it was so good he wanted her to make a workshop in the monastery. Two years later her father died and ever since she has felt his presence, motivating her to be an icon painter.
Opening Up to an Icon Painter
I ventured to speak and share that I too felt that my vocation had been influenced by a parent, now terminally ill. To my embarrassment, my voice broke and my eyes welled up. I tried to apologize but it came out as a small moan. I was mortified and felt my face flush; I could only stare at the floor. Then David, an American ex-pat who chose Cyprus as his home 30 years ago, said: “In this country, people are comfortable with feelings.” I dared to look up at Myrianthi and saw the emotion in her face. Despite no words having been uttered, she too had been moved, and we smiled at each other through tears.
For many years, I had kept my feelings under closely-guarded lock and key, like museum pieces. Shut off from the light of day, my emotions had become stiff and brittle, contained within a shellacked veneer. Today, in my own studio, an original Myrianthi Constantinidis representation of the Virgin and child sits near me. Among the pieces I have collected in my travels, the icon is special, a reminder that there is something of the divine in the spectrum of human emotions, and the grace that calls them forth.
Visit Myrianthi's website here.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.